What is carob? Discover the benefits of this healthy chocolate alternative
Where does Carob come from?
The origins of Carob use go back some 4000 years, to when the ancient Greeks began cultivating it in Italy and Greece from its native Eastern Mediterranean (likely Arabic) roots.The Carob tree, or Ceratonia siliqua, is technically a legume of the pea family, and produces pea-like pods, which contain pulp and the seeds from which Carob is made.
Also referred to as “St John’s Bread,” or “Locust Bean,” Carob was once thought to have been the locust eaten by John the Baptist in the wilderness. However, it was later discovered that migratory locust was what he consumed, dispelling the myth. Due to their consistent size, Carob beans were once used to weigh gold and gems by the ancient Arabs, which is where the weight known of as a “carat” comes from.
Carob today is grown as far and wide as Australia, South Africa, India, and North and South America, and it's known not only as a premier chocolate substitute, but as a food so rich in antioxidants, nutrition and fibre, that it easily qualifies as a superfood.
However, unlike chocolate, carob does not contain caffeine, making it arguably a healthier alternative to chocolate. Carob also contains three times as much calcium as cocoa, is fat-free, and does not contain oxalic acid, a compound found in chocolate which impairs calcium absorption.
Together, these factors help make carob not only a great-tasting, slightly-sweet chocolate substitute, but one that's highly nutritious and offers a wide range of benefits.
What's the difference between chocolate and Carob?
While chocolate itself does contain a fair number of nutritional assets, the nutritional content of carob is certainly nothing to be frowned upon. For one, carob has about 3-times the amount of calcium that chocolate has, and without the calcium-blocking oxalic acid which chocolate contains. Carob is also supplies phosphorus and vitamin D, and together with it being a rich source of calcium, helps it support healthy bones and teeth, as well guarding against osteoporosis.
One thing carob does not contain is any caffeine or theobromine—both of which are stimulants. While it is true that there may be certain health benefits to caffeine and theobromine, they can also cause sleeplessness, irritability and hyperactivity in children. Additionally, theobromine is known to cause migraines in those sensitive to it, making carob an attractive option to those wishing to avoid the effects of theobromine and caffeine.
And, while chocolate has 15 grams of fat per .03 kg, carob has none, making it a good option for those on a fat-free diet.
While both chocolate and carob contain B vitamins, including thiamine, riboflavin, niacin and folate, carob carries these essential nutrients in higher concentrations than does chocolate.
Finally, carob is naturally sweet, and the naturally-occurring sugars in it work in unison with food cofactors, making digestion optimal and glycaemic response minimal. Since chocolate needs an added sweetener, there is a higher likelihood for insulin response when consuming it. Sugar used to flavour chocolate is also often processed and refined, making it less favourable and healthy than the naturally occurring sugars found in carob.
The Health Benefits of Carob
Carob contains a multitude of vitamins, minerals, fibre and antioxidants, which elevate it from merely being a pleasant-tasting addition to baked goods and desserts, to being an important source of nutrition.
In fact, along with its pleasant, natural taste, carob contains a unique array of healthy components, including:
- Gallic acid – A well-known and powerful antioxidant, gallic acid is an organic compound found in plant tannins, as well as blueberries, walnuts, apples tea and flax seeds. The gallic acid found in the tannins of carob work as an analgesic, and are also known to help guard against allergies, are antibacterial, antiviral and antiseptic. Early uses of gallic acid were as a natural relaxant during childbirth by Native North Americans, as well as early American settlers. Native Americans also made balms out of witch hazel bark, as well as tea from its leaves, and, despite not knowing that gallic acid was the medicinal component in witch hazel, used the balm on wounds to prevent infection, and the tea to prevent menstrual problems, colds and other illnesses. Today, gallic acid has also been shown to be effective in inhibiting neuronal death, and is used to help guard against neural disorders. Finally, gallic acid has shown to prevent neural mutations and has anti-cancer properties which help guard against leukemia, prostate, colon and lung cancers.
- Fibre - Most of us are familiar with the benefits of a diet high in fibre, including lowering of LDL (bad) cholesterol, providing healthy digestion, supporting probiotic colonies in the gut, detoxification and helping to balance hormone levels. Since carob is a rich source of both soluble and insoluble fibre, it can be an important source of these key nutrients. For instance, studies have shown that a diet containing carob fibre can reduce total cholesterol by as much as 7.8%, and LDL cholesterol by as much as 12%. This makes carob a strong component in battling not only high cholesterol, but one which guards against heart disease and circulatory health as well.
- Vitamin E – Carob also contains about 0.6mg of vitamin E (Tocopherol) per 103 grams, making it a good source of this key fat-soluble vitamin. Vitamin E is an important antioxidant, and is known to protect the human body against such toxic elements as air pollution, as well as help guard against premenstrual syndrome, cataracts and other eye problems, and neurological diseases such as diabetes and Alzheimer’s. Since vitamin E helps rid the body of free radicals, immunity levels are also of benefit due to its antioxidant properties, which also help it guard against the risk of cancer development.
- Selenium – At around 5.5mcg’s of selenium per 103 grams—or about 10% of our daily requirement—carob is a rich source of this often-overlooked, yet essential trace mineral. Selenium may help in preventing thyroid disorders, cognitive decline, cardiovascular disease and cancer. Selenium contains more than two-dozen selenoproteins, all of which play crucial roles in reproduction, as well as thyroid hormone metabolism. Selenium also aids in DNA synthesis, as well as protection from the damage caused by free radicals in the body, and guarding against infection. Finally, selenium is used to treat diarrhoea in both adults and children, which makes carob a healthy digestive aid, as well as a tasty treat.
What Can Carob be Used For?
Carob has been used through the centuries for everything from a digestive aid, to helping singers maintain clear vocal cords.
Some of the many uses for carob are:
- Supports bone health – Carob is a rich source of not just calcium, but vitamin D and trace minerals such as magnesium and phosphorus. While calcium alone is known to promote strong, dense bones, it must work in unison with these other vitamins and minerals to be absorbed by the bones. In short, adding carob to one’s diet can not only provide a wonderfully chocolaty flavour to foods, but help guard against osteoporosis as well.
- Throat health – While unproven, carob is thought to aid in clearing singer’s throats and promoting throat health. In fact, 19th century British chemists sold carob to singers for this very reason, and it is thought that chewing carob can soothe and clear throats and vocal cords.
- Fighting high blood pressure – Sometimes it is as much about what carob does not contain, as what it does contain. In this case, it is both caffeine and theobromine—both of which are stimulants—which chocolate has, and carob does not. However, what carob does contain is both soluble and insoluble fibre, which can lower bad LDL cholesterol; and carob also contains polyphenols, which are antioxidants known to lower cholesterol. Together, these factors help to lower blood pressure in those who experience high blood pressure—as well as reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.
- Treating colds, cough and flu – Carob has also been used as a treatment for colds, cough and flu, likely due to its immune system boosting properties. These include a host of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals such as zinc, which are known to aid in supporting a healthy immune system.
- As a protein source – Like other members of the pea family, carob is a great vegetarian source of protein. In fact, carob contains just under 5g of protein per 103g serving, making it a viable source of one of the human body’s most important building blocks.
- As a digestive aid – Not only can the tannins in carob help increase the effectiveness of certain digestive enzymes in the body, carob is also a rich source of dietary fibre. Dietary fibre helps rid the body of toxins and other waste matter by “scrubbing” the colon and helping waste move along, and fibre is also necessary in maintaining healthy gut flora. Together, these factors make carob an attractive aid in good digestive health, which in turn has synchronistic benefits to overall health.
- Help Guard against anaemia – Since carob contains iron--a mineral highly regarded due to its necessity in creating haemoglobin in the blood--carob can also help lower the risk of anaemia. Since haemoglobin is a protein necessary in carrying oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body, not getting enough iron can lead to severe levels of fatigue, heart problems, complications with pregnancy, and even death.
- As a hypoallergenic treat - Unfortunately for some, chocolate can produce an allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. The symptoms of anaphylaxis may include hives, vomiting, swelling of lips, throat and tongue, vomiting, wheezing and even death. Other’s may also have an immune system reaction, which can cause gastrointestinal distress, acne, constipation, migraines and upset stomach. However, carob is hypoallergenic, meaning that not only does it not cause any of these dangerous and uncomfortable conditions, it can also help to alleviate them. Those sensitive to caffeine, theobromine and other stimulants found in chocolate can also enjoy carob without fear of nervousness, trembling, high blood pressure and rapid heart-beat which can occur from eating chocolate.
How Can I Add Carob to My Diet?
One of the truly great things about carob is, that pretty much anything with chocolate in it, can have carob in it instead. Carob is widely versatile, and can be used in baking and desserts, as well as in hot drinks.
In its powdered (most common) form, it can be added to cereals, stirred into warm drinks, or used in shakes and smoothies. Carob ice cream is available for those who may be allergic to substances in chocolate, and it can also be found in bar form, as well as in other types of candy.
Also, as a low-sugar sweetener, carob can be added to energy bars, and carob chips can be found in many trail mixes.
Truly, there are endless uses for carob, which not only is good for you, but tastes great, and provides natural, low-calorie sweetness to any number of foods.
Choose Carob for Good Health
Carob has a long history for good reason, since it is not only a great-tasting alternative to chocolate, it can also be a key source for vital minerals, vitamins, antioxidants and fibre.
True, chocolate has a strong place in our modern world, although not everyone is able to enjoy it due to allergies or sensitivity to stimulants. And, due to chocolate typically having added sugar and being a source of caffeine, theobromine, and oxalic acid—a compound known to weaken calcium absorption in the bones--carob may just be a safer, healthier alternative.
By choosing carob, we can enjoy a naturally sweet, uniquely flavourful and nutritious product which delivers proteins, B vitamins, vitamins D and E, antioxidants, and about three times as much calcium as chocolate. This means that carob can benefit everything from heart health, to digestive health, and even bone strength.
Explore our favourite carob treats by the Carob Kitchen: